Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A Break in Cornwall

In October, we took a long weekend trip to Penzance in Cornwall.  We had a lovely rail journey, as part of the track runs right along the shore (we almost certainly traversed the portion of the track which has since been destroyed at Dawlish in the recent late-winter storms).  We stayed in a Grade II-listed eighteenth-century town house on historic Chapel Street.  The house was much bigger than our flat, with three floors and two separate living areas.  We had to shout to each other to figure out who was where.  We made great use of the fireplace and the two cozy armchairs in the living room and one night watched The Big Lebowski, which was in the DVD collection.

The first two things we noticed about Penzance were 1) that it smelled of sea salt (which reminded me of a family trip to the Canadian Maritimes) and 2) there were palm trees! (because Penzance is in a sub-tropical zone).
We were also just steps away from the house Maria Branwell, the mother of the Brontes, grew up in.  Further up the street was the old Wesleyan Methodist chapel, which I suppose they must have attended (the Branwell were Methodists before the sect split off from the Church of England).
Other than relaxing by the fire with books, Tim and I did two awesome seaside walks.  First we set out to the east for Mousehole (pronounced Mow-zel, I don't know why) via Newlyn.  Here we go along the promenade at low tide.
Mousehole was delightful, set on a hill and surrounding a harbour.  Tim stopped at a pub and had the catch of the day.

The next day, we headed out in the other direction, for St Michael's Mount, just off the coast at Marazion. You can see town and castle/island in this picture.  It was quite breezy that day, so we also got to enjoy watching the kitesurfers as we walked along.
We had checked the low tide time the day before to make sure we could walk across the causeway to the island.  Usually, you can take a boat back to the mainland at high tide, but for whatever reason, it wasn't in operation on the day of our visit and the castle closed early that day, so we mostly just walked around the grounds for a bit, and then headed back across the causeway without seeing the castle itself.  Alas.  We'll just need to visit again someday.
In Marazion, heading back to Penzance, with palm trees!  If you find yourself with the opportunity to visit Cornwall, I'd certainly recommend it.  It was a lovely place for a seaside break, even in October.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Coming Out of Hibernation

Daffodils and blossoming tree in the churchyard of St Leonard's, Eynsham
Well, hello, hello, hasn't it been a long time since I updated?  A scandalously long time, in fact.  I have decided my best excuse is that I was hibernating and now that it is spring (or, at least, it was very springy on Sunday), I had better get back to it.

I suppose the real reasons for lack of posting were partly born out of busy-ness, as this term I have prepared and submitted all my materials for the Confirmation of my DPhil status, and I am currently racing towards the completion of a full draft (!) of my thesis.  I'm also still submitting my YA fantasy novel to literary agents, and should be pushing ahead on the first draft of a new novel.

In the coming days and weeks, I plan to post on
  • my experiences on the third year of the DPhil and the work/writing/life strategies that are currently working for me
  • 2013, the year that was (including the best books I read last year)
  • our recent travels to Cornwall, Munich, Vienna, and Prague
Until then, a few more pictures from our walk up the Thames Path to the deliciously cute village of Eynsham.

The Thames path, rather muddy in places, but dry here.

The 18th-century toll bridge at Swinford.  Still charges a measly 5 p per car at the bottom.  Free for pedestrians and cyclists, however.

The tower of St Leonard's church in Eynsham

Monday, 23 December 2013

Bristol Day-Trip

Hello, hello, poor neglected blog!  Three months is a long time between posts, so now that I'm sort of on Christmas vacation, I will try to catch you up on my Michaelmas adventures - DPhil strategies that mostly seemed to work and trip pictures - as well as the standard end-of-the-year "Best Books" post (which I can't write yet because I'm still reading!) and goals for 2014 (namely: Submit Thesis).

The best way to slide back into blog posting is to share some pretty pictures, so I'll start with shots from our November anniversary day-trip to Bristol, which was great fun.

Upon arriving in Bristol, we headed to the furthest afield site we were interested in: the suspension bridge at Clifton, designed by good old Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  (Actually, there's a bit of a Brunel theme to the whole trip.)  We walked across half the bridge.  Apparently there are great trails on the other side of the Avon gorge but we didn't have enough time to explore them.  Next time, perhaps.

We checked out the bridge from the hill the Clifton Observatory sits on.  As you can see, the observatory was all fenced off, so we couldn't explore inside.  Alas.

Then we headed down through Clifton to the harbour, passing delightful (and very expensive) row houses along the way.

We made a point of popping into one particular courtyard to see the blue plaque on the building where Thomas Beddoes had his Pneumatic Institute in the late eighteenth century.  Tim wrote his MA thesis on Beddoes, who was also a Clifton doctor.

Bristol's harbour was rather lovely and housed, in permanent dry dock, Brunel's S.S. Great Britain, which you can tour inside and out after a great deal of restoration work.  The ship was the first to combine an iron hull with a screw-driven propellor.  In the 1930s, it was scuttled off the coast of the Falkland islands, but in 1970 the ship was raised and floated back to Bristol, where it had originally been built and launched.  As you can see, the hull has taken quite a beating from being immersed in salt water for decades, so it is now kept in very dry conditions to keep the iron from rusting any quicker than it needs to.  The interior is set up to resemble the ship's days as an immigrant ship to Australia.

Bristol Cathedral.  We met a very friendly verger on the way in, whose wife was Canadian.  We knew he must be connected to Canada because it was Remembrance Day and he was wearing a Canadian poppy, rather than a British one, and had secured it using a little Canada flag label pin.

 This is Cabot Tower, a lovely Victorian folly, built to honour John Cabot, who set out to explore what is know Canada from Bristol.  We got a lovely, misty view of the city from the first viewing platform.  I'm glad we didn't go to the top of the tower, because the stairs we did climb made my knees rather unhappy as it was.
 Then we followed that up by going down the Christmas Steps, a nice shopping street, and came upon this medieval almshouse.
 We saw this bomb-damaged church on the way back to the train station.  Because of its harbour, Bristol was a prime target for Nazi bombs during the Second World War, making the fifth most heavily bombed city in the country.
And to end our Brunel-themed trip, here is the Brunel-designed train station.

We also very quickly popped into John Wesley's first-ever Methodist chapel, but I don't have a picture of it!  I will check with Tim to see if he took a photo on his phone.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Music of Hilary, Trinity, and Long Vac 2013

Well, it's been ages since I've done a music post, which is a bit of a shame, because I've discovered a number of new bands I quite like since my last post.

A friend of mine recommended Fleet Foxes and Bat for Lashes to me, both of which I quite like.  Fleet Foxes has a nice, throwback thing going and reminds me of classic rock, while Bat for Lashes has an indie/Florence + the Machine thing going on.

I might like 'Daniel' best of the Bat for Lashes catalogue, but 'All My Gold' is the one I get stuck in my head most often.  The Fleet Foxes song is 'Myknonos', which is great.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A Day-Trip to Birmingham

 Back in August, basically on a whim, Tim and I took a day-trip up to Birmingham, a city neither of us had been much interested in previously, but we ended up having a fantastic time and will almost certainly need to go back again.  What I discovered almost immediately upon arrival is that Birmingham is filled with treasures for a Victorianist, filled with lovely red-brick buildings and, for instance, the above-pictured Great Western Arcade, built in 1875-76.
 The lovely interior.
 Then we went to Birmingham's cathedral, one of the smallest in England, but lovely to visit, especially because it features four huge stained glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite painter.
Here you can see two of the windows.  They all featured a surprising amount of red, making them seem rather lurid.
 We were very impressed with the civic spaces and buildings surrounding the Town Hall, which looks like a classical temple and which we apparently didn't take a picture of (tsk, tsk).  I've forgotten what the first building pictured was, but the lower one is the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  The museum is free and wonderful - sort of a smaller mix of the Victora & Albert Museum (furniture, ceramics, etc.) and the Tate Britain (many pre-Raphaelite paintings, which we somehow missed), plus some great local history.  The history of the city did a great job of covering the Enlightenment figures who lived in Birmingham (many of whom Tim studied for his MA) and the city's abolitionists.
 A statue of Joseph Priestly, who discovered oxygen and was a Unitarian minister.  He was unfortunately run out of town when a mob burned his house down.  He ended up in the United States.  Tim considered writing his thesis on him.

After the museum, we went to the Pen Museum in the Jewellery Quarter.  For quite awhile, Birmingham was the centre of both the jewellery trade and the steel pen trade.  The Pen Museum housed tons and tons of metal pen nibs (including giant ones for use on posters!), pen nib boxes, and the machinery used to punch and shape pen nibs, plus fountain pens and typewriters of varying vintages, which you could actually test out.  For years we kept Mom's old university typewriter in the basement and when I was little, I remember playing with it was fair bit, and getting frustrated with the keys would all jam together.  This was the first time I'd used a typewriter since Mom's ribbon ran out of ink - they even had ribbons with black and RED ink!  It was all very fun, but I came away very grateful for computers.  I can't imagine typing an essay - a thesis - a novel - on a typewriter!

If we'd had more time, we would have booked a tour of the Jewellery Quarter Museum as well, but instead we set off through the quarter on a hike up to Matthew Boulton's house, Soho House, where the Lunar Society met.  One the way, we passed buildings that were (are?) jewellery workshops.
 This is Soho House.  I have to say, it seemed very liveable to me for an eighteenth-century house.  They've even uncovered the remains of a hot air heating system Boulton rigged up for the house.

Boulton was quite the man.  The house originally abutted the land taken up by Boulton's ground-breaking Soho Manufactory (sadly, it's all suburbs now).  With James Watt, Boulton came up with a new version of the steam engine, which ended up in factories all over the country.  He also minted coins and lobbied for an assay office in Birmingham, which allowed for the growth of the silver trade in the city.  Plus, how can you not love a man who had a Fossilry in his house - that is, a room for storing fossils!
At the end of our day in Birmingham, we went down to Gas Street, a span of the Birmingham canal charmingly lined with restaurants and pubs.

If we ever go back to Birmingham, we'd also like to see the university campus, Winterbourne House and garden, Aston Hall, and the Birmingham back-to-backs, the last surviving court of houses in the city, but you have to book ahead, as they only allow tours of eight through at a time.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Avignon, Pont du Gard, and a Miserable Day in Arles

I did promise my mother I would finish posting the highlights of our France trip.  For the last few days, we were based in the old town of Avignon, where popes (and then anti-popes) set up shop for about a hundred years in the 14th century (Rome was thought to be too dangerous).  The entire old city is surrounded by an intact medieval city wall and is very walkable, with quirky little side streets and squares.  We also liked Avignon because we could hop on the TGV to go back to Paris, or go by train or bus to other places in Provence.

 Here is the Papal Palace by sunset, on the gloriously warm day of our arrival in Avignon.

The next day, it had become quite a bit cooler and rainier, alas.  We took a very inexpensive bus up to the Pont du Gard, exclaiming over all the vineyards we passed and all the lovely hills.  Provence felt much more sun-baked and Italian than we were expecting.  This is the river itself, with great hills on either side for scampering up and down and taking in the view.

The famous bridge with the aqueduct just running along the very top (after the sun had come back out).  The museum here had a really fascinating exhibition on the engineering and administration that went into building this aqueduct in the 1st century AD to supply water to nearby NĂ®mes.  This is the second-tallest Roman ruin after the Coliseum and it was something to behold in person.

The next day, we took an ill-fated day trip to Arles.  Sigh.  The forecast for our visit to France promised us temperatures of 25 degrees each day we were in Provence.  Alas, on this day, it poured rain and was windy and was about 8 (EIGHT) degrees!  Since we had stupidly not brought our umbrellas with us and had only light jackets, we ended up rather soggy and sad.

 Here is Arles' Roman arena - still in use for rodeo-style events, with metal risers built over the old stone seating.  I couldn't decide if I was really pleased the arena was still being used for something like its original purpose or slightly sad that it wasn't being carefully preserved as a Roman ruin.  The tower you see towards the back is a medieval construction and at one point in the Middle Ages, an entire settlement was set up inside the arena.

We came to this church because the always-helpful Rick Steves promised it had one of the most beautiful and elaborate entrances of any Romanesque church.  The church wasn't open when we happened by.  We considered waiting awhile so we could see the inside, but we were soaked by this point and decided to cut short our visit to Arles.  We dashed through the pouring rain to catch an earlier train, took a wrong turn, missed the train, and then ended up on a bus back to Avignon.  I suspect we need to go back to Arles some day when the weather's nicer.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The Loire Valley

From Paris, we took the train to Amboise, on the banks of the Loire, whose valley is home to hundreds of chateaux.  

Part of the chateau at Amboise

This hall had a real, live fire to heat it.  At first this seemed strange to us - an open flame in a historical building?  But it does make a fair bit of sense - there have been fires in these buildings for hundreds of years, after all.

While in Amboise, we also visited Clos Luce, a large house and walled garden where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years at the invitation of French king Francis I.

On our second day in the Loire Valley, we took a minibus tour to two of the biggest chateaux in the region.  Above was our first stop, Chambord, the largest chateau of them all and the first (or one of the first) to be built purely for hunting parties and, well, entertaining, rather than defense.

One of the highlights was this double helix spiral staircase.  There are two different sets of stairs which never meet.  Tim and I had fun each taking a side and catching glimpses of each other across the central well from the windows set into the staircase.

The fantastical, fairy tale-ish towers and turrets up on the terrace are also wonderful.

Chenonceau was next.  Looks smallish from the front, right?

The main chateau was given to a French king's wife for her use, but she was then replaced by the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who had the chateau wing built across the river!

Here is the gallery which runs across the river.

And here is the kitchen, one of the best fitted out we've ever seen in a great house.

Then it was back to Paris in order to get on the TGV to Avignon!